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Cakebread Cellars and De Loach

Vineyards moving ahead: Cakebread Cellars and De Loach

Jean Deitch Sexton

What do you do when your winery has reached its silver anniversary and you’re wondering how to keep the momentum of success going?

Jack Cakebread and Cecil De Loach, spirited competitors on either side of the Napa-Sonoma county line, aren’t spending a lot of time resting on their laurels after 25 hard-earned years of winemaking achievement. They are expanding in a big way.

Fast becoming an anomaly, Cakebread and De Loach have managed to avoid selling their family-owned wineries to major corporate entities. They have effectively withstood the financial pressures, over time, of building a wine brand. Even as they’re planning the next 25 years, another family name on a label has been bought out – Sonoma-Cutrer announced in February it had sold its brand to Brown-Forman.

Looking ahead, Cakebread and De Loach know expansion is critical to maintaining financial independence. In February, Jack Cakebread celebrated the close of escrow on 100 acres of prime Howell Mountain vineyard property in Napa. Good vineyard land is at an all-time premium so Cakebread is understandably excited about acquiring the parcel, which has about 15 plantable acres.

“It’s a really choice piece of property. The owner is from out of state. He had to go back and run his company so it came on the market and we grabbed it,” says Cakebread. He will plant virtually all of the acres with Cabernet vines “and there might be a little Merlot.

“That’s a special place for Cab. The nice, gravelly soil makes it an ideal spot. It has the right moderate climate and it cools off at night. There’s good drainage for both water and air.” Cakebread said.

The Howell Mountain property gives Cakebread an opportunity to expand Cabernet production at a time he sees as ripe for increased sales. “In Asia, where we usually sell Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, people are buying more Cab than ever. They’re influenced by the French Paradox stories,” Cakebread says. “It’s a phenomenon that has now spread around the world.”

Cakebread released his 1996 Napa Valley Cabernet in February, but “it’s never enough.” It is quickly allocated to his international distribution network and precious little remains to be sold at the Rutherford tasting room.

Of the 85,000 cases Cakebread Cellars produces annually, 40% are Chardonnay, 25% Sauvignon blanc and the remaining is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot noir.

Cakebread also has 70 acres of vineyards at the winery and 12 acres on his own estate property in the Napa Valley – all planted to Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. He has also developed long-term contracts with grape growers in the Carneros region, buying Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot noir and some Merlot.

Big building plans are also underway in Rutherford. In May, Cakebread will break ground on a new 32,000 square-foot winery. “We expect our first crush using the new facility to be in the year 2000,” says Cakebread.

A prime motivation for the facility, which will bring the winery up to 50,000 square feet is the need for more barrel storage. “We’ve been renting space for some time in the Napa business park, but we want more control over humidity and temperature,” Cakebread says.

The existing winery, built in 1996, will be exclusively used for white wine production and the new one for red, according to Cakebread.

San Francisco architect Don Brandenberger, who did the 1996 facility, has designed the new building to meld into Cakebread’s distinctive naturalistic wood buildings. “The two winery buildings will look like bookends,” Cakebread says.

Cakebread, who owns a retreat at Sea Ranch, a California coastal enclave known for its architecturally distinctive wood houses, had Sea Ranch designer and friend, the late Bill Turnbull, create the overall winery concept and remodel the century-old original residence on the property. The comfortable ranch-style building now houses Cakebread’s spacious office and the winery’s professional kitchen.

With the loss of his friend, Cakebread searched for someone who could execute in a style similar to Turnbull and he is pleased with his choice.

De Loach Acquisitions

In Sonoma County, Cecil De Loach is aggressively adding to an already impressive portfolio: De Loach Vineyards recently acquired about 200 acres, and now owns a total of 700 acres of some of the best dirt in the world.

De Loach’s landholdings sprawl through the flatlands of western Sonoma County – all in the Russian River appellation – encompassing 17 houses which employees are eager to rent, and holding ponds that attract spectacular birds from the Pacific Flyway. History is alive in this land. The old Zinfandel vines on the Saitone property, dating back to 1895, are still producing delicious fruit for De Loach.

His latest acquisition is along Piner Road where De Loach will grow Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir and Gewurztraminer. About half of De Loach’s annual 160,000 cases is Chardonnay, another 40,000 is Cabernet Sauvignon, 20,000 is Merlot, and the rest is a medley of white Zinfandel, Fume blanc, Pinot noir and Zinfandel.

Out of the area, De Loach also owns 73 acres of old Zinfandel vines in Butte County.

De Loach uses all the grapes he grows; an additional 35% of his volume is purchased from long-time suppliers. “We only use the best growers since quality starts from the very beginning, when you prune the vines. Over time we have worked with our growers to adopt farming practices that will give us the highest quality fruit,” says De Loach.

Cecil De Loach is in a building mode as well. This year he is adding a 16,000 square-foot production facility right next door to his existing 12,000 square-foot facility. As his acquisitions mature and the new vines begin to bear fruit, De Loach will need the additional capacity. In about three years the winery will begin to see a significantly increased production.

Border Skirmishes

Jack Cakebread loves to joke about the eternal Napa Valley – Sonoma County wine rivalry. “Did you get your inoculation shots at the border?” he asks an intrepid Sonoma visitor. Joking aside, he is quite serious in his approach to marketing wine.

On the road with a daunting international travel schedule, Cakebread believes his primary mission is to advance the cause of American-made wines and a close second is touting the magic of Napa Valley wines.

“When I’m traveling I sell wine, first and foremost, then I sell United States wines, then California and finally the Napa Valley. At that point if you’re still listening to me, I’ll sell you Cakebread wines,” says Cakebread.

The European vintners used to be heavy competitors,” notes Cakebread, but he sees U.S. wines, and notably Napa Valley brands, gaining market share around the world.

An active member of the Napa Valley Vintners’ Association, Cakebread is most decidedly part of the valley’s wine elite, noting the “Bob” Mondavi’s office is just a blink away from his.

Matching Cakebread’s rigorous schedule is Cecil De Loach, who travels one week a month, reluctantly buying commercial tickets. De Loach is a veteran pilot but confines flights in his Cessna Centurion to the western United States, for the most part.

To effectively compete for the high-end varietal market, De Loach makes a sizable commitment in marketing staff, employing close to 20 marketing coordinators who work with distributors to sell the brand. It’s a rather large staff for a winery De Loach’s size but he believes the old-fashioned face-to-face approach works best.

At a recent airline exposition in Europe, De Loach sent one of his senior marketing staff rather than a broker, which would be the customary practice.

The people investment has paid off, with De Loach doing a good business in both U.S. and international accounts, among them first class cabin service for British Airways, United Airlines and Delta.

Blue Collar Beginnings

Jack Cakebread and Cecil De Loach do have a few things in common: neither one of them started off in the fancy-schmancy world of wine sippers.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine someone debating the relative merits of Zinfandel labels in Cakebread’s father’s Oakland car repair business, circa 1940. But Cakebread agrees, nowadays someone with a lot of tattoos can turn out to be a wine connoisseur.

And it’s equally difficult to think that Chardonnay was the drink of choice of men in the San Francisco fire department, where Cecil De Loach served as a firefighter in the 1960s.

Love and Wine

Jack Cakebread and the light of his life, his wife Dolores, were high school sweethearts who helped his parents harvest their peach and almond crops on their Contra Costa County ranch. After they married in 1950, Cakebread bought out his father and worked at Cakebread’s Garage.

A talented photographer, Cakebread studied with the master, Ansel Adams and to this day he believes black and white photography is the only true photographic art; color photographs “are just to sell something.” At his winery, Cakebread has assembled a wonderful “Growers Gallery,” black and white portraits he has taken of his grower partners.

Cakebread was asked to take photographs for a wine book in 1972 and while in the Napa Valley, he visited family friends at the Sturdivant Ranch. During his visit he casually mentioned an interest in acquiring vineyard property. By the time he returned home the Sturdivants had called to offer the property, and Cakebread Cellars was born.

In the early days, Cakebread would work at the garage and then head up to Napa Valley Friday afternoons with Dolores and their three sons, Bruce, Dennis and Steve. Eventually, the Cakebread clan relocated permanently in the Napa Valley and the second generation went into their father’s business. Bruce is celebrating 21 years as Cakebread’s winemaker; his wife Rosemary became chief winemaker of Spottswoode Winery after working for ten years in production at Cakebread. Dennis manages sales and marketing while wife Sara handles the winery’s media relations. Steve, an early contributor to the winery’s success, is now cfo at Autodesk in San Rafael; his wife Karen coordinates special events at the winery.

But the linchpin of the winery is Dolores, the hospitality direc-tor and overseer of the winery’s luscious flower and vegetable gardens and its gourmet kitchens. Dolores adds charm to the winery’s many hospitality venues and gives the winery the comfortable family feeling it imparts to visitors. “We’re different than most families. I pick a bottle of wine first from our wine cellar and then we decide what to have for dinner,” laughs Cakebread. Don’t ever say “food and wine” to Jack. “Wine comes first. Please, I’m not selling food,” he bristles.

Perpetuating the Land

At De Loach the person most likely to eye a stove is Cecil, an accomplished chef who perfected his style during 16 years of feeding San Francisco firemen.

In 1969 De Loach and his wife Christine, a probation officer, began looking for agricultural land in Sonoma County. Their timing was perfect. Many of the Italian families that were early settlers in the western part of the county were ready to sell. De Loach bought 24 acres from Louis Barbieri, whose father had planted Zinfandel vines as early as 1905.

Until 1975 De Loach sold grapes to other wineries. “My first crop check was for $32,000 and at the time I was making $16,000 a year as a fireman.”

During the ’70s, “there was a big sea change in the wine business,” recalls De Loach. “I was very fortunate in the time I started.” He was able to acquire producing vineyards at $2,000 an acre on the cusp of a change in the consumer culture when wine became more popular, and a radical shift in the economies of now decidedly pricey Sonoma County.

“I fed the business with my fireman’s salary, reinvesting it each year,” says De Loach. He lived simply in a trailer on the ranch, tending the vines and making more land acquisitions in a relatively short amount of time.

It’s all paid off nicely. Today De Loach has the resources to indulge his love of flying and collecting antique cars. How many wineries can boast of having a personal antique car restorer? De Loach has one with his own garage on one of the winery parcels.

While he travels extensively and his label picks up pages of awards, De Loach’s personal passion remains where it always has been: in the land.

“I like being in the vineyard,” says De Loach. “I like the grapevines. You can learn a lot about a man from looking at his grapevines.”

At a grandfatherly age when some men might mellow, Jack Cakebread and Cecil De Loach, two veteran wine warriors, are still briskly competing, and enjoying a lifetime of producing good, straight ahead varietals, some of the best in their class.

(Jean Dietz Sexton contributes frequently to Wines & Vines from her base in Sonoma County. She has an up-to-date visa for entry to Napa County.)

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